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Online review battles heat up

Just as one legal method restaurant operators could use to negate unfair ratings disappears, a better one appears on the horizon

The Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016, signed into law by President Barack Obama in December, won’t give operators any relief in the way their restaurants are rated online.

But a case currently before the California Supreme Court could wind up giving restaurant owners legal clout to fend off unwarranted online assaults. 

The biggest names in tech are hoping that doesn’t happen. 

Restaurants weren’t really the target of the new federal law, which was aimed at gag orders some merchants, professional service providers and contractors use to suppress consumer complaints online.

For instance, the restaurant Grill 225, in Charleston, S.C., employed this tactic. In exchange for a reservation for parties larger than four, customers had to a sign a contract agreeing to pay $50 apiece if “any potential negative, verbal or written defamation against Grill 225” appeared online post-meal.

That’s illegal now. The Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016 "makes certain clauses of a form contract void if it prohibits, or restricts, an individual from engaging in a review of a seller's goods, services, or conduct."

Review sites Yelp and TripAdvisor couldn’t be happier.

"The Consumer Review Fairness Act gives Americans nationwide new guaranteed legal protections when it comes to sharing these honest, first-hand experiences,” Yelp’s Laurent Crenshaw told Engadget

Restaurant operators don’t have a problem with reviews based on honest, firsthand experiences either. Instead, their love/hate relationship with review sites centers around disparaging comments posted from reviewers who may not have actually had a firsthand experience, or who choose to negatively embellish an actual one.

Yelp says its reviews come from registered users, but you don’t have to be Edward Snowden to figure out how to post anonymously on Yelp. TripAdvisor relies on the honor system for posting.

The strongest testimony to the importance of online reviews to businesses can be seen in the rise of the reputation management industry, where professionals make sure negative reviews get buried deep in search results. A number of DIY solutions—including several we’ve written about in Restaurant Hospitality—can help operators mitigate the damage from unfair online critiques.

Most restaurants have learned to co-exist with online reviews, but there’s little question that negative write-ups can hurt business. They put a damper on staff morale, too. Running a restaurant would be easier if there was some legal tactic operators could employ to make egregiously unfair reviews disappear.

One might be on the way: The California Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could turn the tables on review sites such as Yelp.

Here are the particulars: San Francisco lawyer Dawn Hassell sued a client over what she claimed were defamatory reviews of her legal acumen posted on Yelp. A San Francisco judge ruled that the Yelp reviews were defamatory, and ordered the company to remove them. A state appeals court upheld the ruling, and the state Supreme Court is expected to rule on it next year.

The lawyer’s client—not Yelp—was the defendant in this case. Yelp only had to take down the offending reviews as per the court order. However, this suit has drawn the attention of not just Yelp, but also of other Internet giants. A verdict for Hassell could “silence a vast quantity of protected and important speech,” according to a letter sent to the California Supreme Court last August by Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft.

Their concern? According to Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University: “You could imagine the floodgates opening up with businesses trying to do exactly what Hassell did to get rid of unwanted reviews on any user-generated content site anywhere on the Web.”

Hassell argues that would not be the case should she prevail.

“You can give critical reviews about people on the Internet,” she told the Associated Press. "It doesn't mean it's going to be defamation. You can't write untruthful content to hurt somebody." 

Which is exactly what some restaurant owners feel is happening, all the time, on Yelp, TripAdvisor and similar sites.

Keep your eye on this case as it moves forward this year. As you do, bear in mind that the results of a new survey from investment firm RBC Capital Markets “found that nearly 100 percent of respondents have heard of Yelp, up from 66 percent in 2014. Some 50 percent had written Yelp reviews, up from 41 percent in 2015.”

Given this level of ubiquity, monitoring your restaurant’s online reputation will continue to be a key marketing priority in 2017.

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